By nominating a suspect in the bombing of an Argentine Jewish center to be his defense minister, the president of Iran may have just given a boost to Jewish groups pushing for sanctions against the Islamic republic.
Even if the nomination last week of Ahmad Vahidi does not have a significant effect on U.S. strategy for dealing with Iran, it could provide insight into the Iranian regime and the thinking of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to at least one expert on Iran and several Jewish organizational leaders, Ahmadinejad’s move was a demonstration of how little Iranian leaders care about international opinion, as well as a signal that hardliners are in control in the Islamic Republic.
Vahidi, who served as deputy defense minister in Ahmadinejad’s first term, is one of five Iranians wanted in connection with the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people and is believed to have been carried out by one of Iran’s proxies, the Lebanese-based terrorist group Hezbollah.
Vahidi, a former commander of the Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, is suspected of helping to plan and finance the attack. The international police agency Interpol has issued a “red notice” for Vahidi seeking his arrest and extradition.
The Vahidi appointment comes as the Jewish community gears up for a major effort to press for tougher U.S. sanctions against Iran. Hundreds of Jewish community leaders are slated to visit Washington for meetings with congressional lawmakers and White House officials Sept. 10, and a massive rally is planned outside the United Nations in New York City two weeks later, when Ahmadinejad is scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly.
The Obama administration said earlier this month that in September it would reassess its policy of diplomatic engagement toward Iran, around the time of the opening of the General Assembly. Published reports have discussed the introduction of sanctions stopping the export of refined petroleum.
So far, the U.S. administration has been cautious in responding to the nomination of Vahidi. State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly called the nomination “disturbing,” but he also said that he would defer further comment until Vahidi officially takes office.
“He has to go through parliament and get confirmed,” Kelly said. “And I think we’ll reserve comment on him, in particular, until after this whole process plays out.”
Israeli and Argentine officials, as well as leaders of U.S. Jewish organizations, are not holding back.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement that the Vahidi appointment “proves yet again the nature of the regime in Iran, and its leaders’ intentions.”
Argentine officials also have reacted strongly to the nomination, with the government calling it “an affront to the victims” of the AMIA bombing.
The executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, whose group is organizing the September events in Washington and New York, said the Vahidi nomination “adds to the cumulative” case against Iran.
If tougher U.S. sanctions on Iran are to have any real bite, though, critics of Ahmadinejad agree that the Europeans, Russia and China must also get on board.
One test on that front will be if, as most defense ministers do, Vahidi tries to travel — and if Interpol member states respect or ignore the Interpol notice.